Our education needs an extreme makeover

Pertunia Thulo -- Tue, 01/21/2014 - 00:00

Our education needs an extreme makeover

(Prof Robert Balfour, Dean of the Faculty of Education Sciences, wrote this opinion piece that was published in the Sunday Times.)
The Department of Basic Education has painted a rosy picture of the 2013 Grade 12 results, but senior officials at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of the Free State say that pass mark standards ought to be raised.

This cannot be an adequate response to the lingering crisis in education in South Africa.

The mismatch between higher education’s expectations of Grade 12 graduates, and what is delivered year on year is increasing. This mismatch is growing as fast as the mismatch between industry expectations and the graduates higher education produces.

Calls to ‘raise the bar’ as regards the pass rate, seem reactionary at best, misplaced at worst. Raising the standard of the pass rate does not address poor quality teaching. A serious ‘wake-up’ is needed in education (schooling as well as higher education) in South Africa. It is well and good to claim, as Graeme Bloch does, that school leavers now are better off than they were in 1976, but this is not the world, nor the economy, of 1976. And, claiming to produce more ‘successful’ students in 2013, while still living with the consequences of education in 1976, does not make these graduates better able to survive the challenges unique to South Africa in 2013. We know this is crisis is a legacy of the Apartheid era, but how long will it endure, and how may it be addressed?

The dismally low throughput rates in universities suggest that schooling does not meet the requirements of either higher education or the economy itself. The born-frees celebrated by Motshekga, seem instead to have been born instead into ‘spectacular mediocrity’; mostly neither able to pursue the professions critical to the South African economy, nor able to participate meaningfully in knowledge generation. It is telling that the FET sector is mostly now privatised in South Africa, and that government has yet to enter into any significant coordinating industry partnership with these providers. Building new colleges and extending the lifespan of those that are barely functional, cannot be regarded as a serious response to the issue. Learning has moved outside of government institutions. Regulation of poor quality does not address quality, it generates instead a regulated mediocrity.

The education crisis in schooling is defined by two further dimensions: the first is teacher supply and provisioning norms; the second is the quality of teaching, and its impact on learning. Both affect how long this crisis will endure.

Data on teacher supply and demand is patchy. Even the government standard of one teacher to every 30 pupils bears little relation to the reality of teaching and its application is invidious. Teachers with classes of 30 or more will acknowledge that the possibilities of reaching every child, addressing each child’s needs and learning styles, become remote. Middle class schools circumvent the nonsense of it by appointing and funding governing body posts. The middle classes can afford to buy off the excesses of a post-Apartheid education system that does not work. The real costs of this system are then borne by poorer schools which cannot afford governing body posts. It has been shown that poor and rural schools have the highest rate of teacher attrition and are ‘expensive’ because of high staff turn-over.

Large classes risk becoming unteachable, and that smaller classes provide for more individual teacher attention. In the 21st Century where learning styles are rapidly being acknowledge as individualised, attention translates into better performance; provided the teacher is competent.

No child is born stupid. In addition to the inadequate provision of teachers, the low status and quality of teaching remains a critical issue and is linked to the quality of our teachers. Judging by the recent NSC results, the quality of teachers remains problematic: the professional development of teachers does not compel teachers to improve their knowledge of subject content, but focused rather on the attainment of higher qualifications, many of which were pursued by teachers in fields not related to the subjects they teach. How have teachers reacted to the pressures? Some research suggests that teacher absenteeism is related to inadequate subject knowledge. Unable to meet the requirements of new curricula, teachers stay away. Other work shows that the teachers who exit the profession, are those most able to secure work elsewhere. An HSRC study found that 55% of teachers would want to leave the profession if they could, and that younger and newer teachers are more likely to leave the system earlier. The profession itself is in crisis and major unions have played an insignificant role in raising the standards of teacher professionalism.

Instead inadequate teachers produce cohorts of students graduated into joblessness. Given that the Apartheid education system was corrupted, and educated people for narrowly defined and circumscribed forms of work, South Africa’s investment into teachers in the post-Apartheid era ought to have been massive and focused on the development of subject content knowledge. Higher education is similarly problematic in terms of addressing the need. We know, given the dismal performance of higher education in SA, that one cannot assume that higher education transformation post-1994 represents a radical qualitative departure from the uneven education and training of the past. Instead it might be regarded as another example of regulated mediocrity. We cannot assume with confidence that teachers trained after 1994 in South Africa will shift the quality of education in schools and the last cohort of teachers who trained in ‘Apartheid’ colleges or universities, will be employed up until 2034. South Africa can reasonably expect that the crisis currently experienced in higher education and in teacher training might diminish towards 2040.

However, Apartheid’s long tail has an additional sting. The number of students, who qualify for entry into scarce professions, has been declining. Curricula might have been transformed, but teachers have not. In 2012 only 30 944 of the Grade 12 (or 13.7%) graduates possess Mathematics sufficient for scarce professions; in 2013 the DBE missed its target again for students passing Mathematics. Since 2007 performance in what the DBE defines as ‘gateway subjects’ might have improved, but not sufficiently for higher education institutions – there is little point in improvements which fail still to meet requirements for access let alone, success, at university level. Higher education blames schools, but it is equally clear that higher education provides few solutions: in the glass house of education in South Africa, blame is unhelpful.

Without an inspection of the quality of teaching in classrooms, backed up by rigorous professional development, we remain as we are: mired in mediocrity with little prospect of change. Simply ‘raising the bar’ as regards the pass mark on the one hand, or keeping it at 35%, to claim more success on the other hand, won’t suffice. South Africa needs a radical national intervention in education: teacher as well as learner enrichment programmes in language, mathematics and science, preferably over at least a five year period – a kind of great academic ‘leap forward’ in a series of compulsory summer and winter schools for learners and teachers. Universities in partnership with the DBE and SACE are the key partners in such an initiative.

Effort without coordination may merely deepen and lengthen the crisis.


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